Reverse Engineering Sorrow
Being able to cry real tears on command is cool as fuck.
Even before I started acting in earnest I admired when actors were able to cry real tears. I tried for years to be able to do it too, but the best I could do was to aaaalmost reach tear-stage and then a yawn would force its way out of my face, ruining the moment. It was so frustrating. It happened every time, no matter how into the role I was, no matter how I was feeling in my real life up to that moment. Y a w n. And then the moment was gone and I had to start all over.
There are loads of ways to approach acting in a soul-stirring way. Raw immersion. Technique out the wazoo. But there is one popular technique that I do not believe in: The Method. Method acting, to the non-theater nerds amongst us, refers to two different schools of thought: the Stanislavski Method of Acting and the Strasberg Method of Acting.
Stanislavski (1863-1938) was a Russian actor who laid a foundation based on principles such as “The Magic If”, a technique I like where one thinks about how they would react in the character’s shoes. It’s a little limiting bc using it could potentially lead to expression based upon narrow lived experiences or strong personalities. In my experience, instructors sometimes like to say, while teaching this principle, “That’s not how the character should react.” Well, maybe not to you. Stanislavski also had the “Given Circumstances” principle, which is basically referring to any material you can mine from the script–the settings, the actions, the lines, the words between the lines, the things unsaid and choked back emotion (I love those best of all). Also brilliant and immensely helpful, especially in voice acting when there’s sometimes so little information given you practically have to chisel the script down to a nub to find something useful (or you just make it up instead!).
Strasberg (1901-1982) was a Ukrainian-born American director who made his own Method inspired by Stanislavski’s. The Strasberg Method is best known for being the version where an actor is told to associate the character’s emotions with their own lived experiences in order to draw a realistic performance from real-life personal history.
When I talk about the Method–when most people talk about the Method–this is the one they mean. I don’t like this version of Method acting. A lot of actors employ this version. Daniel Day-Lewis and Jared Leto spring to mind, and there are loads others. Whatever works for them, I say. Whatever gets them to the moment in a way they need.
But I still don’t like it.
My reasoning is because, more often than not, directors are all too willing and able to get an actor to a dark, emotionally precarious place but getting the actor back out of the pit safely? Nah. The actor is on their own. Granted, experienced actors may be able to do this just fine. Some of them seem to revel in staying in character over long stretches of time. But not everyone can. Or, frankly, should. Sometimes trauma is touched upon, all for the sake of one performance? There’s something gross about exploiting the inner sanctum of an actor’s sanity just for an enactment.
But how the hell is someone supposed to cry real tears if they aren’t actually hurting? A simple, not-so simple answer (and one I like best) is physiological acting. I learned how to do this from Stephane Cornicard, using what he calls the “Seesaw Method”, which is a way to explore emotions physically instead of, well, emotionally. I remember when I first learned it from him he said something like, “If you get really good at this I promise you’ll be able to cry real tears.”
A group of us began the exercise and even though I didn’t tear up that day, I remembered the lesson. It was so, so, so, SO much easier to bring forth an “emotional” response when I remembered what my body was doing at the times I felt those real emotions. I’ve worked at this technique ever since and it’s now very easy to elicit an apparently emotional response with just a little inward focus.
When interviewed for The Last of Us, Bella Ramsey mentioned using something called a “tear stick” to make the tears come. I had never heard of such a thing! I looked it up immediately: A tear stick is basically vaporub in tube form, swiped under the eyes to make them tear up. According to Ramsey, the tears brought on by the tear stick help her evoke true emotion by putting herself through the physicality of crying first. This is the same principle as what I have been working on, but with an external tool and working backwards–reverse engineering sorrow–instead of it coming strictly from the inside.
I wonder what other acting tools are out there that I don’t know about.
Recently I was in a play where my character broke down emotionally. The script didn’t call for it, but it felt right to do in the moment. I was able to dig deep into the physiology of the character. I silently wailed. I choked. And I cried real tears. I had people come up to me after every show, often with tears in their own eyes, telling me how moving I had been.
Talk about an ego boost!
Curiously (at least to me) despite having no actual emotion attached, crying tears and feeling the physical heaviness of deep sorrow was just as exhausting as if I had been wailing in earnest. When I remarked on this to others, the response was often “Yeah, you were crying, of course you’re tired” BUT I WASN’T ACTUALLY CRYING Y’ALL that’s the POINT.
It’s fascinating that so much of what we feel emotionally actually has to do with how our bodies feel. It makes sense. The brain is just a squishy lump of electrical pulses and precariously balanced chemicals. How often do we feel like shit because we’re hungry, when just having a snack and re-regulating the brain by taking care of the stomach first makes everything better? How brilliant is it that someone figured out how to harness what is already there, to work smarter and not harder, to do what is an intrinsically challenging task.
It’s so obvious, but only when it’s been pointed out.
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Va the Vo
Actor, Vocal Pro, and Writer Extraordinaire!